Want to Succeed? Monitor Yourself

Have you ever heard of the “quantified self?” It’s what happens when technology meets self-monitoring. Other catchy phrases referencing the same thing are lifelogging, autoanalytics, and self-tracking. Self-monitoring is not a new idea (early adopters include Saint Ignatius and Benjamin Franklin), and most of us have been doing it for years in some form or another – think bathroom scales and heart rate monitors. But as a tried and true idea, self-monitoring — enhanced by technology — is gaining traction. Tracking the details of your daily existence has become hugely popular in the health and wellness industry because it’s effective and computers and smart phones have made it almost effortless.

If your goal is weight loss, diligently recording your food intake along with your activity level will dramatically increase your chances of success. Why? Because tracking diet and exercise increases your self-awareness on several counts. It keeps you focused on your goal, strengthens your commitment to self-improvement, increases your feeling of control, helps you understand patterns in your eating and exercise habits, provides a detailed picture of your progress, and promotes a more positive mood.

Sleep-Cycle-briefapps-icon-150x150But why stop at diet and exercise? We have a seemingly limitless choice of technology to help us track just about anything. From our moods (Mood Panda), to sleeping (Sleep Cycle), and even our menstrual cycle (iPeriod). The novelty is seductive, yet if you can find an app or even create a spreadsheet or handwritten chart that supports you in reaching your goal of self improvement, use it! Self-awareness is the key, and cultivating it through closely monitoring your activities will keep you on track and accountable.

I’ve used Strava and Sleep Cycle and have a client who swears by Fitbit. What tools do you recommend? I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comment section below.



Kirschenbaum, Daniel S. Ph.D. (2000) The 9 Truths About Weight Loss. New York. Henry Holt & Co.

Baumeister, R. F. and J. Tierney (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York. Penguin.

Willpower and Setting Goals

Coaching is a truly effective way to recognize what behaviors and attitudes are working for you and which ones are not. Is your exercise plan realistic for your busy lifestyle? Do you sabotage your desire to eat fresh healthy foods by stocking the pantry with processed junk for the kids? A careful inventory of your lifestyle is designed to boosts your self-awareness around good and bad habits. Once boosted, you move on to making a plan of action with your coach. What do you want to change and how can you change it? This step is all about goal setting. Here is what the authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength have to say about using what we know of our self-control to set and achieve reasonable goals.

Don’t Set Conflicting Goals

How many of us want to be the best we can at our job, parenting and as a devoted spouse or partner? That’s three big goals right there. It’s no surprise that juggling the demands of a job, children and a relationship will leave you exhausted, frustrated, and feeling inadequate at all three.

The result of conflicting goals is worry. We spend our energy scrambling to cope with the demands and so “replace action with rumination.” Our physical and mental health may suffer because we are stuck in a cycle of negative rather than positive emotions. Fewer goals mean a better success rate, but who want to hear that! Keep reading; there are a few things you can do to keep that worry in check.

Short Term vs. Long Term Goals

Concentrate on short-term objectives in lieu of long-term goals. Research has found that meeting short-term goals builds confidence and self-efficacy, and improves learning and performance. Setting long-term goals has the same result as setting no goals at all. So though you may want to lose 50 pounds, you’re better off starting small. The path to the larger goal is filled with many incremental and therefore attainable milestones.

Reduce Mental Nagging


Executive coach David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity describes an elaborate but effective filing system that allows you to prioritize and organize every last task and commitment. His philosophy is based on the Zeigarnik effect. “Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders coms to a stop.” In essence the process of making a plan–not necessarily completing the task—frees the mind from niggling worry.

Managing the worry caused by conflicting goals and the stress of the infinite to do list involves making a plan. It’s not necessary to complete the job right now, but once you have an action plan in place, the mind can calm and focus on the task at hand.

More on Willpower

Check out two previous blog posts on the book Willpowerhow willpower works and the connection between willpower and glucose. There are more to come, so please follow the blog (button on the left) to be notified about future posts.

Willpower and Glucose

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength contains so much useful information that I’m exploring the key points of this book in separate blog entries. In my first post on it, I described how self-control or willpower is likened to a muscle that can be exhausted. The more you use it throughout the day, the less strength you have.

So how does the body replenish willpower? According to Baumeister and Tierney, the answer is glucose. When we digest food, our bodies produce glucose molecules that enter the bloodstream providing energy to the cells of our muscles, brains and various body systems. No glucose, no energy, no willpower

This phenomenon is born out again and again in research. For example, scientists in Finland studied convicts being released from prison. The researchers were able to predict –with 80% accuracy– which convicts would go on to commit violent crimes simply by monitoring their blood sugar. Other studies found that persons with hypoglycemia seem to have a harder time concentrating and controlling negative emotions. Diabetics can have more problems with impulsivity, alcohol abuse, anxiety and depression than non-diabetics. In all cases, self-control is more elusive when glucose levels are low.


So where does the body get the necessary glucose? Fruits, starchy and sugary foods top the list. Think about what you crave when you blood sugar takes a dip… Sweet drinks, sugary snacks, and often chocolate come to mind because they provide a quick hit of glucose.

Women might appreciate knowing that Willpower also gave context to the cravings and weight gain associated with PMS.  Following ovulation, a woman’s reproductive system uses extra energy (glucose), leaving less available for the rest of her body. To counteract the shortage, sugar can seem pretty irresistible at this time of the month. However, healthy low-glycemic foods like nuts, veggies, and fish also provide what’s needed and have been shown to alleviate PMS symptoms.

An interesting bit of advice from the authors to parents is that if your child is sick when it’s time to take the SAT, they will almost certainly be better off taking it the next time it’s offered. The self-control needed to sit for hours solving math problems and choosing vocabulary definitions just isn’t there when a virus is sapping your glucose.

Finally, sleep is also vital to healthy glucose levels and resulting willpower. When we are sleep deprived, our body’s ability to process glucose is impaired. We all know how overwhelming upcoming decisions and tasks can feel at the end of the day or in the middle of the night. Remember it will all feel infinitely more doable in the morning. More rest, more glucose, more willpower, less stress.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and The New York Times science writer, John Tierney are the coauthors of the bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011). Together they have crafted a remarkable collection of research findings on how humans control (or don’t) their thoughts, impulses and actions. Their conclusions are surprising, often debunking popular beliefs. What the reader comes away with is an appreciation for the biology behind our everyday mental struggles and some realistic strategies to work within our innate limits. I found so much valuable information–with numerous implications for each of us–that I’ve decided to devote several separate blog entries to the book.

To start, the authors report that more than one million people surveyed about their own character strengths most often rank “self-control” at the bottom of the list. Yet psychologists also know that self-control is vital for personal success. So why is it so elusive and can and how do we strengthen it?

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

If we wake up well rested and manage to have a decent breakfast, we each begin the day with a healthy amount of willpower at our disposal. However, an inevitable decline occurs as we make decisions and control our impulses throughout the course of a normal day. Baumeister and Tierney use the term ego-depletion to describe the effect of using up our self-control. Most of us are left with a diminished capacity to regulate ourselves toward the end of the day. (Think skipping your afternoon workout, yelling at your children, or the late-night snack.) Willpower should be thought of as a muscle that can be fatigued.

This is just a short summary of what humans are up against as we try to harness our willpower. If you’ve already decided this as a losing battle, it’s not! The book goes on to apply these findings to dieting, goal setting, self-esteem, and I’ll explore all of these and more in upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, the authors suggest focusing your efforts on one project at a time. You’re only setting yourself up for failure by taking on too much or dividing up your resources among many goals. New Year’s resolutions are a good example. Stick with one reasonable goal, and you’re much better equipped to meet the challenge.

Stay tuned for more on Willpower!



Baumeister, R. F. and J. Tierney (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York. Penguin Books.